Historical Backdrop of Yeshayahu 1


An Undated Prophecy

The opening verse of Sefer Yeshayahu teaches that Yeshayahu prophesied during the reigns of Uzziyahu, Yotam, Achaz, and Chizkiyahu. However, most of the individual prophecies in the book are undated, leaving the historical background of each of them uncertain. Yeshayahu 1 is a case in point. Which of the four kings was the intended audience of this rebuke? Does the fact that the prophecy opens the book suggest that it was the first prophecy received and that therefore it should be dated to the reign of Uzziyahu, or might the book be achronological with this being a much later prophecy? What clues does the chapter provide which might allow one to reconstruct the era of which it speaks? Do the sins described fit one king's reign more than another?  Do Yeshayahu's descriptions of destruction match what we know about a particular era?

Overview of the Kings

To determine which era best corresponds to Yeshayahu's rebuke, a brief overview of the spiritual and political state during each reign might be helpful:

  • Spiritual state – Both Melakhim and Divrei HaYamim share that Uzziyahu, Yotam, and Chizkiyahu were righteous kings, while Achaz followed in the idolatrous path of the Israelite kingdom, going so far as to sacrifice his son1 and shut the doors to the Beit HaMikdash2. Even the righteous kings, however, were not fault-free, and each of Uzziyahu and Chizkiyahu sinned in the area of arrogance.3 Additionally, we are told that despite Yotam's own upright behavior, the nation did not follow in his path.4 The descriptions of the kings' reigns say nothing of the nation's behavior in the interpersonal realm, making it difficult to know if worship of Hashem was accompanied by social justice or not (and indeed the people's interpersonal behavior is a focus of much of Yeshayahu 1).
  • Political state – In the political realm, both Uzziyahu and Yotam enjoyed prosperity and victories over their enemies,5 while Achaz and Chizkiyahu suffered at the hands of foreign invaders. Achaz was attacked by Aram, Israel, Edom, and the Philistines, resulting in the devastation of much of the country.  Chizkiyahu ruled in an even more tumultuous period, as the ten tribes were exiled and Yehuda itself was attacked by Sancheriv, leaving the kingdom in ruins and Yerushalayim besieged.

Sins Against Man and God

Yeshayahu rebukes the people on multiple levels:

  • Interpersonal sins – Much of the chapter focuses on sins in the interpersonal realm, as Yeshayahu chastises the nation for its mistreatment of unfortunates, perversion of justice, and corrupt leaders.  He calls on them to correct their ways: "לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט...  שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה" (‎v. 17), bemoans how a once righteous city is now filled with murderers (v. 21), and attacks the dishonesty of the country's officers: "שָׂרַיִךְ סוֹרְרִים וְחַבְרֵי גַּנָּבִים" (v. 23).
  • Crimes against Hashem – Yeshayahu's words regarding the people's spiritual state are ambiguous. On one hand, Yeshayahu's cry in verses 11-13 ("לָמָּה לִּי רֹב זִבְחֵיכֶם" etc.) imply that, at the time of the rebuke, the nation was worshiping Hashem and bringing sacrifices.6   At the same time, several other verses suggest that the people had turned away from Hashem.  The prophet laments: "וְהֵם פָּשְׁעוּ בִי" ‎(v. 2), "יָדַע שׁוֹר קֹנֵהוּ... יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַע"‎ (v. 3), and "עָזְבוּ אֶת י"י"‎ (v. 4). A final chastisement, "כִּי יֵבֹשׁוּ מֵאֵילִים אֲשֶׁר חֲמַדְתֶּם" ‎(v. 29), is open to interpretation, but might refer to idol worship under trees. 

Although it is clear from this that the people addressed in Yeshayahu 1 sinned in the interpersonal sphere, it is not clear where they stood on the religious plane.  Were they worshiping Hashem or idols?  How can the contrasting portraits in the chapter be reconciled?  Finally, under whose reign did the nation sin in the manner described?7

Destruction: Past or Future?

Yeshayahu's words depict a desolate and destroyed country.  However, as the various descriptions are formulated at times in the present or past tense, and at other times in the future tense, it is hard to know if Yeshayahu is pointing to punishment already received, or warning the nation about the devastation destined to come in the future. 

  • "עַל מֶה תֻכּוּ עוֹד תּוֹסִיפוּ סָרָה" – Is the word "עוֹד" connected to the words which precede it ("עַל מֶה תֻכּוּ") or the words which follow it ("תּוֹסִיפוּ סָרָה")?  Is the prophet suggesting that the people have already been smitten and questioning why they would want to be hit yet again, or is he warning them that they will be struck if they continue to stray?
  • "אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה...  אַדְמַתְכֶם לְנֶגְדְּכֶם זָרִים אֹכְלִים אֹתָהּ" – This appears to be a description of the present desolation, as Yeshayahu speaks in the present tense ("אֹכְלִים"), describing what is happening to the land right in front of the people's eyes ("לְנֶגְדְּכֶם").
  • "וְנוֹתְרָה בַת צִיּוֹן כְּסֻכָּה בְכָרֶם" – This clause, on the other hand, is cast in the future: Zion will be left as hut in a vineyard.
  • "לוּלֵי י"י צְבָאוֹת הוֹתִיר לָנוּ שָׂרִיד כִּמְעָט כִּסְדֹם הָיִינוּ " – Finally, this verse reverts back to the past, as the people say that Hashem has left them a remnant.

Given this vacillation between past and future tenses, how can we determine during and about whose reign Yeshayahu is prophesying?  Might some of these terms be reinterpreted, thereby casting the entire description in one tense or the other? Which ones can grammatically be read in another way?